Can I keep chickens in a fruit cage?

In my earlier post on the searches that lead people to my blog, I mentioned the question ‘can I keep chickens in a fruit cage?’ My, rather glib, answer was ‘Yes, but only if you don’t want any fruit.’ I now realise that this really isn’t a good enough answer – this is a serious question. I know this because variants of it keep appearing as the search terms used to get to my blog.

A spot of excavation

When we first toyed with the idea of keeping chickens, we considered the options for confining them – including whether having them in the fruit cage for some or all of the time would be possible. This was in the days before we owned any chickens and really didn’t know what they are like. I’m guessing that anyone who asks this question is, like we were at the time,  unfamiliar with hens. So for all you folk in this position, I’d better describe the natural habits of these creatures. First, you should understand that hens like to dig… I don’t mean just scratch around a bit… I mean they will excavate quite large holes and they are capable of getting through really compacted earth. I recently visited some people who bought a property with an old cow shed on it. This shed contains a highly compacted layer of cow muck so packed that it requires a pick axe to loosen it. They have found, however, that their chickens are able to scratch it up, making it possible for them to excavate it and use it on the vegetable beds.  You can imagine, therefore, what a chicken can do to earth under your fruit bushes.

The other important thing to know about chickens is that, even though they don’t really fly, they can get quite a height off the ground if they have an incentive, or even just when the fancy takes them. Some are better at it than others, but the temptation of raspberries is likely to entice even the most portly chicken to do a bit of jumping. Wing clipping is touted as the answer by many, but that only stops them getting lift with their wings and ours can certainly jump quite high if they really want to even if they are missing some feathers.

Janta at Karuna describes chickens as ‘the enemy of the forest gardener’… although he does have a few chickens, he prefers ducks. Ducks do not scratch the ground, so do not excavate your plants, they are fond of slugs and they seem less inclined to consume fruit (unless they get a taste for it). Since a fruit cage often contains an assemblage of plants that can be thought of as the lower layer of a forest garden, then Janta’s experience suggests that there is no place for chickens in  your fruit cage. My answer, however, is a little more complicated.

A chicken-free fruit cage

I would not keep chickens in the fruit cage permanently, unless I had a very big fruit cage and just a few chickens – in which case the loss of fruit might be at an acceptable level and there would be enough ground for them to scratch around without doing too much concentrated damage. However, I think it unlikely that you’d have a sufficiently big fruit cage for this to work and all low-growing fruit would be likely to be eaten. I do, however, allow ours into the fruit cage occasionally in the winter – partly because they enjoy rooting around in an otherwise forbidden area and partly because they eat some of the slugs in there. I am careful to prevent them going during the spring when fruit is starting to develop because they have no qualms about eating unripe fruit – don’t think that because it’s still green, it’s safe from their attention! The other time I put a chicken in the fruit cage is when I have one that needs to get over being broody. Aliss is particularly susceptible to broodiness and will, if allowed to, sit on the laying box for days at a time. When this happens, we turf her out into the fruit cage, where the only shelter is provided by the plants and where there are many things to pique her curiosity. She spends her days in the fruit cage and her nights with the other hens and after about 72 hours she’s usually over it.

As well as preserving ground flora, roots and fruit, I have another reason for excluding our hens from the fruit cage – it seems to be a preferred habitat for frogs, toads and lizards in our garden. We often find frogs in there and it certainly provides them with a refuge. If you do not keep chickens you may be unaware that they can be enthusiastic meat-eaters and frogs seem to be particularly attractive to them. I’m always slightly distressed when one of my pest controllers eats one of my other pest controllers, so keeping them separate seems the best option!

So, overall, the answer is that chickens and fruit are not the ideal combination in an enclosed area, but you can use the two to mutual benefit.

The battle of the runner beans

Regular readers will know that Aliss the hen has turned out to be some sort of reincarnation of a velociraptor… but with a taste for vegetables rather than people. This is something of a relief – I wouldn’t want to take my life into my hands to go out and collect eggs, and the cost of a rifle might outweigh the savings as a result of not having to buy in so much protein – but there is now something of a battle going on as regards the vegetables.

The reason for growing vegetables is so that (mostly) Mr Snail-of-happiness and I can eat them. Aliss disagrees. She is not content with left overs – lettuces running to seed, weeds, peelings, slightly manky kale leaves – she wants the good stuff. And she wants it fresh off the plants. The answer, therefore, is to place the vegetables out of harm. I want free ranging chickens to keep the slugs under control, so the hens run free whilst the vegetables are confined.

Runner beans, denuded to a height of four feet or so

This approach worked well with our previous little flock, but Aliss is wily… like a coyote as well as a velociraptor. In the past the hens were allowed in amongst some of the vegetables once they reached a suitable height. Runner beans were great – none of the old hens wanted to eat them and they provided shade if it was sunny. So, this year, once the beans were well on their way up the bean poles, we opened the area to the hens. All went well until…  Aliss developed a serious taste for runner bean leaves. And not just one or two, and not just up to a height of a foot. Once she’d stripped the bottom leaves, she started jumping up to get at leaves above chicken head-height.

Anti-Aliss barrier!

Enough was enough, so we reinstated the chicken wire… it’s about two feet high and is usually enough to put them off. Not Aliss, though. She simply jumped over it. And then beans started appearing, so she decided to try those… and found them to be delicious. So, I erected an extra layer of chicken wire… four-foot high now. Aliss managed to breach the defences and also use the structure to reach beans that were otherwise out of her reach. By this stage, she’d also convinced Perdy, her partner in crime, to join in too!

A new use for a clothes airer

I reinforced the barrier – ensuring that there were no handy chicken foot holds, holes, gaps, points of weakness or nearby launch pads. I realised that the adjacent lettuce cage provided a location to jump down from so employed an old clothes airer as a barrier, balanced between the lettuce enclosure and the beans. And finally, I think I have won… a whole day has passed without the cry of  ‘she’s bloody well in there again’ ringing through the house. Perhaps my beans are safe… perhaps I will get to eat the whole of some beans rather than just the top half that she couldn’t reach… and perhaps I’ll go out there tomorrow and she will have organised the others to form a chicken pyramid from which she can flap over into her favourite place in the whole garden…

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: